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Office Safety: Do You Know How To Use A Defibrillator?

Would you know what to do if someone in your office collapsed in front of you and became unresponsive? Having a defibrillator handy could save their life – and it’s important for you to know how to use one. I interviewed Dr. Jon LaPook, Medical Correspondent for CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, to get his take. [Interesting factoid: Jon became passionate about cardiac defibrillators after a friend of his died while exercising at a gym in NYC. The health club did not have a defibrillator on site - which could have saved his friend's life.]

*Listen to the podcast*

Dr. Val: What is a defibrillator?

Dr. LaPook: It’s a machine that can convert a life threatening heart rhythm (like ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation) back into a normal beating pattern. It uses a pulse of electricity to do this. These machines are potentially life-saving.

Dr. Val: Why is it important for offices to have them on hand?

Dr. LaPook: About 1.2 million people in the United States have a heart attack every year and 300,000 of those have “sudden death.” The reason why these people die is not because of the heart attack, but because of the irregular heart rhythm that accompanies it. When the heart isn’t beating in a coordinated fashion, it can’t pump blood effectively and people pass out and ultimately die if there’s no intervention.

If a defibrillator is used to administer a shock to the chest during one of these life threatening heart rhythms, there’s a much higer chance that the person’s life will be saved. For every minute of delay (from the time a person collapses) to receiving a shock to the chest, their chance of survival decreases by 7-10%. So it’s very important for people to get defibrillation quickly.

Dr. Val: How do you use a defibrillator?

Dr. LaPook: When you first see someone collapse and become unresponsive, all you have to do is get the defibrillator and press the “on” switch. It will talk you through the next steps. Remember that the first step is always to have someone call 911 so that EMS will be on its way while you continue CPR. Then you expose the victim’s chest so that you can apply two sticky pads, and the defibrillator will tell you where to put the pads. Then it will analyze the victim’s heart rhythm and decide if it requires a shock to get it beating in a coordinated way. If a shock is recommended, the machine will announce that and ask you to step away from the person. Once the shock has been received, it will then give you instructions for CPR (which includes chest compressions and rescue breaths) until EMS arrives or a pulse is able to be felt. If a person doesn’t require a shock, the machine will not give one – so there’s no risk of harm to the victim.

It’s important for people not to be intimidated about defibrillation because it’s really very simple and can save a life.

Dr. Val: What are a person’s chances of surviving a cardiac arrest?

Dr. LaPook: Nationally, your chances of survival (without intervention) are about 4-6%. If you receive CPR, your chances increase to 15% but with a defibrillator – especially if it’s used quickly – the chances are 40% or higher.

Dr. Val: What do you think about the new research suggesting that rescue breaths may not be as important for CPR as initially thought?

Dr. LaPook: I spoke to Dr. Rose Marie Robertson, who is the Chief Science Officer at the American Heart Association, and she said that in a “witnessed arrest” (when you actually see someone collapse) it doesn’t seem to make a {big} difference if you do rescue breathing (i.e. mouth-to-mouth resuscitation) or not. The reason they studied this is because one of the main reasons why people don’t perform CPR is the “ick” factor of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. As it turns out, chest compressions alone are about as successful at saving lives as traditional CPR.  However, if you’ve been trained to do the rescue breathing technique, you should definitely use it. The key to CPR is “hard and fast” chest compressions, about 100 compressions per minute.  Whatever form of CPR you use, the key to success is using the defibrillator as soon as possible, ideally within several minutes.

Dr. Val: What should people working in an office environment know about first aid?

Dr. LaPook: The most important thing is for people to be trained in CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, and defibrillator use.

Dr. Val: Are there enough defibrillators out there nowadays?

Dr. LaPook: Not at all. At the very least, defibrillators should be in every single health club in America. I also think they should be installed in every office building and be widely available at schools.

A cardiologist friend of mine told me about some parents who lobbied for their daughter’s school to purchase a defibrillator. (They were in tune to cardiac issues in children because their daughter had an arhythmia called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.) Two years after the school purchased the device, the girl  - only 13 years old at the time – collapsed while walking past the nurse’s office at the school. The nurse saved her life with the very defibrillator that her parents fought so hard for. So defibrillators are incredibly important, and although they’re not inexpensive (about $1200), you really can’t put a price on life.

*Listen to the podcast*

*Check out Dr. LaPook’s defibrillator training video with Katie Couric*This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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